My grade school son Augustin loves Awana. Every Thursday evening during the school year, he dashes to his closet to retrieve his tote bag where his bright red uniform and handbook are stored.
On a particular week when Augustin was a kindergartner, he had determined to memorize certain Bible books in the correct order to get a reward for completing a section of his handbook, but he kept stumbling on the book of Philemon in the New Testament. Finally, he seemed ready to recite the section to his teacher that evening.
But when my husband Chris, who was leading a third through fifth class that included our then 12-year-old twin sons, went to pick up Augustin from his kindergarten class, the teacher informed Chris that our son was not able to say the section of the book he had been working on -- the order of the books of the Bible that included "Philemon" -- and so Augustin got no section marked off.
We would have been fine with that, were it not for the rest of the story: Our 6-year-old became teary-eyed because he was required to carry the "flag of shame" for not completing a section of the workbook. Apparently, the "flag of shame" practice was the teacher's way of "motivating" students all year. I was very shocked when I heard this. My husband later spoke with the leader, who said this was the only time that his "flag of shame" practice had visibly affected a student negatively, and he assured us that he would not do it again.
When I asked Jack Eggar, the president and chief executive officer of Awana Clubs International, about the flag of shame situation, he said, "It is not Awana in any way, shape or form. We try to teach our leaders to encourage students in their Bible memorization. Awana gets well-intentioned individuals who may not realize they are being insensitive to these little tender hearts."
Awana (an acronym for Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed, taken from the New Testament -- 2 Timothy 2:15) is an organization that aims to help kids memorize Bible passages. Begun in 1941 as a children's program of North Side Gospel Center in Chicago, it grew to become a parachurch organization in 1950 to lead both churched and unchurched children to know and serve Jesus Christ as Savior. By 1960, 900 churches had formed Awana programs, and by 1972 Awana had started its first international club.
Today, more than 12,000 churches in the United States have Awana programs, and Awana is also in more than 5,000 churches in more than 100 other countries on six continents. This accounts for more than 1 million children and youth involved in Awana, who have about 250,000 leaders.
Participants meet weekly during the school year to focus on Bible memorization.
"Awana is an individual church thing. Each church has a lot of latitude as to how they want to shape Awana," Eggar said.
One of the standard ways that Awana is practiced is rewarding students for Bible memorization. Some people have questioned the practice of offering rewards. But the Awana stood firm:
"When kids take the time to devote focused energy to memorize verses, we want to acknowledge them. Biblically speaking, God is into incentives. An incentive is something that encourages us and motivates us."
Author, professor and social activist Tony Campolo attended a Baptist church during his formative years that offered rewards for students who memorized the most scripture, and it motivated him.
"I have to tell you that getting medals was a big thing for me," Campolo said. "But there has been a moving away from that reward system and Bible memorization in general." He believes that today's church educators don't want to communicate to kids that there are winners and losers, which a reward system tends to do.
Stephen Mason, the lead guitarist for the Contemporary Christian music group Jars of Clay, attended Awana growing up in the early 1980s at a Baptist church in Illinois and values the foundation that Bible memorization gave him in his faith journey.
"Awana provided a positive context in my life early on, the leaders speaking into my life," Mason said.
Though the trend in churches has been to move away from Bible memorization programs, Awana continues to be strong in churches worldwide. As a parent, I so value the foundation that the program provides, despite the shortcomings that one leader demonstrated in the Flag of Shame incident.
I feel it is important to be able to ask questions when we see someone in our churches do something we disagree with. But it is also important to be able to forgive. We are flawed individuals and there was nothing morally wrong with what the leader had done. My son's Awana leader admitted his mistake and changed his action.
My kindergarten son, too, was ready to forgive as he prepared the following week for the Awana meeting, determined to get the word "Philemon" down. "Mom, can you get me a pen?" he asked.
He took the pen and wrote an "F" above the "Ph" in the word "Philemon" in his book, to help him remember the pronunciation. While practicing, he got Philemon right every time.
I love that about kids -- how they forgive so easily and bounce back. They don't hold something against the larger program based upon one person's interpretation of the way the program should be run.
When the next Awana night arrived, my son returned to his class, recited the books of the Bible in the correct order, including the book of Philemon, and got the section in the handbook marked off, which earned him a reward -- a jewel for his uniform from the leader.
And a Slurpee from 7-11 on the way home from his dad.
That's one motivation reward which we can all agree upon.